HAVERHILL — Fire officials have concluded the March 7 fire that killed 87-year-old Phyllis Lamot started on a bed mattress and was likely sparked by "improper disposal of smoking materials or an aged heating pad."
A spokesman for state Fire Marshal Stephen Coan said the mattress where the fire began was not located in Lamot's bedroom, but rather in one of the other first-floor occupants living at 477 Washington St. Lamot lived with two younger relatives, Raymond Matthes, 55, and Sherry Matthes, 53, who were both injured in the fire.
The presence of medical oxygen in the home fueled the rapid spread of the fire, Coan said.
"Bringing oxygen into the home brings new fire risks and extreme caution must be used," the fire marshal said. "There can never be smoking in a home where oxygen is used as the danger is enormous. Simply shutting off the oxygen is not enough to ensure safety around heat sources like smoking materials. Oxygen soaks into bedding, clothes, hair, furniture and the air, creating an oxygen-enriched environment."
Yesterday's announcement answered one question about the tragedy, but others remain.
The fire sparked controversy when, just hours after the early morning blaze, the Haverhill firefighters union held a press conference in front of the burned-out triple decker to say Lamot may have survived the fire if Mayor James Fiorentini had not cut two men from their rescue truck. One firefighter went so far as to say the mayor should be charged with murder for taking the rescue truck out of service over a dispute with the union. The mayor had made the cut the week before the fire to cover a $200,000 deficit in the department's overtime budget.
In the wake of the fire, members of Lamot's family accused firefighters of not trying to save Lamot and then politicizing her death by pointing to staffing cutbacks by the mayor as the reason they could not enter the burning building. City officials said firefighters could not enter the building when they arrived because it was engulfed in flames.
A few days after the fire, firefighters apologized to the mayor and agreed to have their men work the rescue truck through June 30 with a mix of free and punishment duty time.
Representatives of the firefighters union did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Yesterday, city officials said an ongoing "comprehensive" investigation of the fatal fire by fire Chief Richard Borden is expected to shed light on what, if any, impact the rescue truck staffing reductions had on Lamot's death. Borden's report is expected to be ready in about two weeks, the mayor said.
Public Safety Commissioner Alan DeNaro has said the occupants of the building tried to put the fire out themselves instead of calling 911 immediately. He said that caused a crucial delay in the arrival of firefighters. DeNaro previously credited firefighters with preventing the fire from spreading to other nearby homes.
The cause of Lamot's death has also not yet been determined. The state medical examiner is waiting for the conclusion of autopsy and toxicology test results, which could take several months, fire officials said. Family members have said they believe the woman died of smoke inhalation.
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